In some ways, Eugene Lewis was the canary in the coal mine for the Montreal Alouettes.
Long before the public grasped the severity of the organization’s descent into dysfunction, their star receiver’s repeated public comments about a desire for greater stability was the first red flag. Despite a professed desire to return, it was his contract talks that deteriorated first when the team couldn’t match his financial demands — not just because he was asking to reset the market for pass catchers, but because a retreating ownership group had simply taken the chequebook away from general manager Danny Maciocia.
Now, the Alouettes are once again under the control of the CFL and searching for a new owner. In the process, they lost two of their biggest stars in quarterback Trevor Harris and Lewis. The Larks have seemingly course-corrected but it is their former receiver who has emerged from the chaos unwrinkled, signing with the Edmonton Elks on a two-year deal that is reportedly valued at $320,000 annually.
Still, for a player who called La Belle Province home for five seasons, such a financial windfall hasn’t softened his concern for the franchise he left behind.
“Honestly, I hate it. I hate it for Montreal, the team and the city. I hate it for just the CFL in general,” Lewis told the Edmonton media. “It’s a weird situation because to really understand it completely, you’ve gotta be in it.”
It’s something that the 29-year-old has become accustomed to since he arrived in the league back in 2017. In the span of just 68 career games, he has had to catch passes from eight different starting quarterbacks and play under the guidance of five different head coaches. He sat through league ownership of the team once before in 2019 and simply couldn’t do so again.
“At this point in my career and right now where I’m at, I wanted to be able to just play football. I want to go out there and be able to help the young guys, help my teammates, help the community and just worry about things like that,” Lewis explained.
“When you’ve got ownership situation things going on, there’s other things you’ve got to think about. There’s other ways that you’ve kind of got to move and you’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s because you just never know what can happen. It’s a chance that the team can fold or they might not.”
Despite his team’s public trials and tribulations, Lewis has remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. The University of Oklahoma product has made 276 catches for 4,347 yards and 28 touchdowns in five seasons. He set new career highs in every statistical category in 2022, with 91 receptions for 1,303 yards and ten touchdowns.
“I’d never take anything from Montreal, I just know in my career, it was a lot of things I had to deal with that nobody really wants excuses for,” Lewis remarked. “Obviously, nobody cares about your quarterback, nobody cares about what the offence is. The only thing people care about is you making plays and if you make the plays and you do the things that you need to do, the sky’s the limit.”
For a player in search of success and stability, the Elks may seem an odd choice. The team’s precipitous decline over the past few seasons has left them without a home victory since 2019 and they finished the 2022 season with an abysmal 4-14 record.
However, Lewis sees potential in the roster constructed by the front-office tandem of Chris Jones and Geroy Simon. The pair set themselves apart in the bidding process with their personal approach, offering understanding and support during a family situation. The team’s lack of recent on-field success did little to deter him after that.
“When I first got to the CFL, the Montreal Alouettes, we were winning three games my first year and [five] games my second year. So going into a situation where it might not have been as good before, it’s nothing new to me,” Lewis explained. “Honestly, I embrace this type of situation because I know at this point in time, it’s a lot of people that might doubt us. There’s a lot of people that might support us but at the end of the day, man, it’s all about the people that sit in that locker room.”
The two-time CFL all-star wasn’t alone in feeling that way, with an impressive contingent of receivers making their way to the Alberta capital. Lewis is joined by thousand-yard man Steven Dunbar Jr. and versatile speedster Kyran Moore, along with incumbent Emmanuel Arceneaux and promising young up-and-comer Dillon Mitchell.
Though he bemoaned his previous QB uncertainty in Montreal, Lewis will have no assurances of competence under centre in Edmonton. The team has settled on former XFL pivot Taylor Cornelius as the quarterback of the future — a player with unique physical tools and flashes of brilliance who has yet to find consistency in his game.
Nevertheless, Lewis believes the Elks’ star-studded group of pass catchers has made the requirements for their quarterback much lower.
“Honestly, for the quarterback just to put it in the areas for the receivers that we got,” he grinned. “We don’t need perfect footballs.”
Just as he foresaw struggles in Quebec, Lewis predicts that Cornelius will be on the rise next year — if only because he’ll be the one catching his passes. No matter who has chucked him the pigskin in the past, success was a guarantee.
“My goal as a receiver has always been to get my quarterbacks paid. I feel like there’s a couple of times I’ve done that and I’ve tried to help the best that I can,” Lewis said. “I just want to see him do well. He has a lot of potential, I’m excited to get to work with him.”